0Cuisine: The herbs, spices & flavours of Crete

Cretan food is some of the best any­where in the world. The com­bin­a­tion of tra­di­tion­al recipes and fresh loc­ally grown ingredi­ents res­ults in food that is that rarest of treats: deli­cious and good for you!

Tra­di­tion­al Cretan food is largely veget­ari­an, which isn’t sur­pris­ing on a rocky island with lim­ited graz­ing but lots of sun­shine. Tour­ist res­taur­ants will serv­er plenty of dishes with meat and fish of course, but even there the qual­ity of the food is mostly down to the fresh­ness of the plant-based ingredi­ents.

Local herbs

Lots of herbs grow wild on Crete and these are gen­er­ally much rich­er in fla­vour that the super­mar­ket vari­et­ies found back home. This art­icle is focused on cuisine so I have focused on herbs used in cook­ing, so herbs like dit­tany (itself a mem­ber of the Ori­gan­um fam­ily!) aren’t included here. Com­mon edible herbs include…

Oregano (Rigani) and Marjoram

Cretan oregano, known as Rigani, is a little dif­fer­ent from the com­mon super­mar­ket vari­ety back home, and is in fact dif­fer­ent from oregano often sold as “Greek oregano” too. Oregano and Mar­joram are closely related and there are a lot of oth­er spe­cies in the genus Ori­gan­um, lead­ing to a con­fus­ing array of com­mon and form­al Lat­in names. The main genus of Oregano is Ori­gan­um vul­gare of which there are sev­er­al sub-vari­et­ies includ­ing the most com­mon (and bland­est) oregano com­monly found in the super­mar­ket “Ori­gan­um vul­gare vul­gare”, and true Greek oregano “Ori­gan­um vul­gare hirtum” (which I believe has good fla­vour). True Cretan oregano is a dif­fer­ent spe­cies in the genus, called Ori­gan­um Onites which is also some­times called (incor­rectly) “Greek Oregano” or (mis­lead­ingly) “Pot Mar­joram”.

I have brought some wild Oregano back from Crete that I am con­fid­ent is Ori­gan­um Onites and suc­cess­fully grown it out­doors in both south York­shire and Derby­shire. It is very pop­u­lar with bees and con­trib­utes a great scent to the garden for much of spring and sum­mer. To grow well it likes plenty of sun. It is avail­able online in the UK now, e.g. from Nor­folk Seeds, and the RHS have more inform­a­tion about grow­ing it. I have found that it will “root” itself if low lying strands are sat on top of moist com­post. The fla­vour is excel­lent so I recom­mend try­ing it if you can get hold of some.

There is a very nice art­icle describ­ing some of the con­fu­sion around oregano and mar­joram at SallyBernstein.com and as recom­mend there I think the ideal is to have more than one vari­ety. Spe­cific­ally I recom­mend at least 2 of the fol­low­ing options: Sweet Mar­joram (i.e. Ori­gan­um major­ana); “Itali­an Mar­joram” (Ori­gan­um x majoric­um) which is a cross between Sweet Mar­joram (Ori­gan­um major­ana) and an Oregano sub­spe­cies (Ori­gan­um vul­gare virens); Greek Oregano (Ori­gan­um vul­gare hirtum); Cretan oregano (Ori­gan­um Onites)

Sage (Faskomilo)

There are many vari­et­ies of sage, with the most com­mon being Salvia offi­cinal­is, whilst the sage found in Crete (and much of North Africa) is Salvia fru­ticosa. This lat­ter sage is the vari­ety most often found in pack­ets of dried sage. I did once man­age to bring some wild moun­tain sage back from Crete and plant it but it was a very young plant and the vigour of the jour­ney was too much for it. I haven’t seen any­where selling plants in the UK, but seeds are some­times avail­able on ebay. For more inform­a­tion on the his­tory and usage of Greek sage there is a nice art­icle on Oliveology.co.uk

Thyme (Thymari)

As with so many herbs, the sub­spe­cies of Thyme that grows in Crete is dif­fer­ent from the one you find in the super­mar­ket back home. The type widely found wild in Crete is Thymus lon­gi­caul­is, com­monly known as Medi­ter­ranean creep­ing thyme), which is avail­able in the UK and is recom­men­ded as ground­cov­er and is very pop­u­lar with bees, but it is not often found lis­ted amongst the best culin­ary vari­et­ies of thyme. The most com­mon culin­ary thyme is French Thyme (Thymus vul­gar­is) and oth­er vari­et­ies used for culin­ary pur­poses include Lem­on thyme (Thymus x cit­ri­od­or­us), Oregano-scen­ted thyme (Thymus pule­gioides), and Caraway Thyme (Thymus herba-bar­ona). FineGardening.com has a good guide for how to grow thyme suc­cess­fully

Mint (Menta)

Mint in Crete

Rosemary (Dentrolivano)

Rose­mary is anoth­er herb with numer­ous vari­et­ies. I haven’t found any in Crete to bring back, so instead I bought 3 dif­fer­ent culin­ary vari­et­ies as part of a pack from Rosemaries.co.uk to try grow­ing at home in the UK, all of which have grown well. Most edible vari­et­ies of Rose­mary are vig­or­ous and upright, whilst Cretan rose­mary (ros­marinus offi­cinal­is pros­tratus) is low grow­ing. As the culin­ary vari­et­ies provide excel­lent fla­vour I recom­mend those for cook­ing, but if you want to attract bees then the Cretan vari­ety makes excel­lent ground cov­er and is avail­able online in the UK

Other herbs

Oth­er herbs on Crete are some­times used in drinks, and you will cer­tainly smell them in the air when driv­ing in the moun­tains of when tast­ing Cretan honey. There is a good list with pic­tures on Creti.co

Popular spices

Crete isn’t the ori­gin­al home to many spices, but as a centre of Medi­ter­ranean trade for mil­len­nia many spices are well estab­lished in Cretan cuisine.

Cinnamon

Cin­na­mon is used on lots of desserts in Crete, as well as in an alco­hol­ic drink called rakomelo, and in a sweeter ver­sion of pax­im­a­dia (rusks) called pax­im­a­dia kanelata.

Cloves & nutmeg

Cloves and Nut­meg, like cin­namom, are used in lots of cretan desserts.

Cumin

Cumin is widely used in spice mixes for meats and oth­er savoury dishes, as well as in tra­di­tion­al coun­try bread.

Paprika

Paprika is used in Crete, for example as part of “seasoned salt” which is sprinkled on top of Gry­os and oth­er dishes with pota­toes or chips. Spicy food is rare in Crete so the paprika found is usu­ally sweet paprika (the scale con­fus­ingly goes from “sweet” to spicy, with sweet mean­ing “not spicy”). I think the tra­di­tion­al paprika is most often Hun­gari­an style (i.e. not smoked), but when cook­ing at home I tend to use Span­ish style (i.e. smoked) sweet paprika as this helps to sim­u­late the smokey fla­vour from a tra­di­tion­al wood fired oven or grill often used in Crete

Salt & Pepper (black and white)

It would be sur­pris­ing if salt and pep­per wer­en’t widely used in any cuisine. Cretan food is no dif­fer­ent and you will find these two staple fla­vour enhan­cing ingredi­ents in many Cretan foods.

Fresh fruit & veg

Fresh fruit and veget­ables are the most key thing in Cretan food. Toma­toes for example are often large and wonky but have a fla­vour nev­er found in the UK. Many Cretans have their own par­cels of land up in the moun­tains and mostly use this to grow fruit and nut trees or near­er to the coast for a green­house. Mel­ons and Grapes are avail­able in large quan­it­ies for pen­nies, and there are also plenty of oth­er fruits like apples, pears, plums, peaches, nec­tar­ines, etc.

Olives

Olive trees thrive in the cli­mate and are found in large num­bers in Crete with large quant­it­ies of olives and olive oil being pro­duced. Loc­al olives are usu­ally small and black and have the stone inside, unlike the large green olives usu­ally sold in the UK. Olive oil is used for almost everything with even things like cakes being made with it, rather than the but­ter, mar­gar­ine, etc found in the UK.

Lemons

Lem­ons are also widely found in Crete, along with oranges (and pre­sum­ably all oth­er cit­rus grows well too). They are typ­ic­ally much lar­ger than the ones sold in uk super­mar­kets and con­tain more just, but also have thick­er skins. When freshly picked they can be used, in front of the air inlet, as won­der air freshen­er in a car. They are used to enhance the fla­vour of almost every food served in Crete and I have found them to be magic­al when adding just a little juice to a Greek Salad.

Tomatoes

The loc­ally pro­duced toma­toes in Crete are large, wonky and abso­lutely amaz­ing in their fla­vour, unlike any­thing you can find in the UK. Sadly in recent years as large west­ern European super­mar­ket chains have slowly taken over (Lidl and Car­re­four primar­ily) they seem to be demand­ing the same rub­bish they serve up to the rest of Europe (bred for even col­our, even tex­ture, and to be long last­ing, but abso­lutely zero atten­tion paid to fla­vour) and so the won­der­ful loc­al toma­toes are a little harder to find than they once were. A good tomato will be wonky, at least the size of a “beef tomato” back home, and when cut in half will have a cent­ral core that is so firm that it is best cut out in a sim­il­ar way to cut­ting out the core of an apple. As well as use in all the dishes you would nor­mally use toma­toes in, the Cretans serve them stuffed with a risotto-like mix­ture, a dish called Gemis­tas (the first let­ter is pro­nounced some­where between a G and a Y, a phon­eme we don’t have in Eng­lish)

Cucumber

Cucum­bers are grown in large quant­it­ies loc­ally. For most people they don’t have an espe­cially strong fla­vour and so they don’t stand out as much as oth­er veget­ables do com­pared to the ones back home, how­ever, with the hot weath­er they are crunchy, cool, and refresh­ing which makes them very sat­is­fy­ing.

‘Weeds’ & Spinach

‘Weeds’ in Crete is gen­er­ally a dish which is made of wild leaves sim­il­ar to dan­deli­on leaves back home. There are lots of dif­fer­ent wild spe­cies which are col­lec­ted and used but all pro­duce a sim­il­ar res­ult. Back home you can get a sim­il­ar effect with a mix of leaves from dan­deli­ons, spin­ach, and rock­et.

Grape Vine leaves

Grapes are grown every­where in Crete, for eat­ing, for wine, and for pro­du­cing Raki. The leaves are also used to wrap a risotto like mix­ture of fla­voured rice and veget­ables — the res­ult being known as dol­mades. The leaves aren’t used straight from the plant, but instead are wrapped in bunches and then very briefly dipped in boil­ing salt-water which softens them. If you want to pro­duce your own from scratch Mama’s Tav­erna has a good guide with pic­tures.

Bell Peppers

Bell pep­pers are com­mon in Crete and are grown in the green­houses. They are used for a num­ber of dishes, includ­ing Gemis­tas and the long sweet pointy pep­pers are great for simple feta-stuffed pep­pers. Pep­pers are also used in many salads even though you don’t see them very often in a “Greek” salad.

Artichokes

Artichokes are often used in Cretan food, with the hearts often being served raw as mezze. You might also find them roas­ted or cooked with potato in a Greek-ori­gin stew.

Aubergines & courgettes

Auber­gines and cour­gettes are used to make frit­ters. In both cases they are shred­ded, have the mois­ture squeezed out, and are then mixed with vari­ous ingredi­ents includ­ing herbs, spices and Cretan cheeses. Auber­gines become Mel­itzano kef­tedes, and Cour­gettes become Kolokitho kef­tedes

Beans & Peas

Large white beans are used in the (in)famous bean soup, which as all Cretans will tell you has the effect that beans are famed for. Broad beans are also widely used, in a range of recipes. There is also a called “Fava” or Favos­al­ata which des­pite the name is made from yel­low split peas not fava beans because “Fava” in Greek trans­lates to “split peas”.

Potatoes

Pota­toes are of course ori­gin­ally from South Amer­ica, but they have been part of Cretan cuisine for as long as any­where else in Europe. The Cretans like to roast them in the oven with large pieces of meat over the top. These roas­ted pota­toes are typ­ic­ally fla­voured with lem­on, olive oil, gar­lic, and herbs. We offer a recipe that should pro­duce authen­t­ic tast­ing res­ults in your oven at home

Traditional meats

The Cretan land­scape offers very little for cows and con­sequently beef is quite rare in Cretan cuisine. Some of the most pop­u­lar dishes use pork, but pigs aren’t a very tra­di­tion­al food on Crete either. The main meat source on Crete are the moun­tain goats and sheep

Lamb / Goat

Crete is home to a unique spe­cies of Ibex called “Kri Kri”. These anim­als are now pro­tec­ted, and more com­mon goats have arrived on the island. As a res­ult much tra­di­tion­al food is based on meat from these types of anim­als rather than the cows more com­mon in much of main­land Europe and the Amer­icas. Most tra­di­tion­al res­taur­ants will serve “lamb chops” and the well known dish Kleftiko is made with “lamb”.

Pork

I have nev­er seen a pig on Crete, but that has­n’t stopped Cretans serving plenty of pork dishes. I have wondered if the eat­ing of pork was some­thing the loc­als did dur­ing Otto­man occu­pa­tion as a way to reject their conquer­ers, or if it is some­thing that returned after inde­pend­ence. Either way, the Cretans make sev­er­al dishes very sim­il­ar to Turk­ish equi­val­ents, but with pork instead of lamb. The best known are Souvlaki which is a pork ver­sion of a shish-kebab, and Gyros which is a pork ver­sion of a don­er-kebab. I prefer both of them to their lamb equi­val­ent. Souvlaki is much easi­er to make at home, altho I have suc­cess­fully made authen­t­ic Gyros at home too. Note that Gyros is pro­nounced to rhyme with “Gear” and “Ross”, not “Eye” and “Rose”!

Snails

Snails in Crete are fant­ast­ic. They are col­lec­ted from the moun­tains and then fed on pasta for a couple of weeks to ensure they are “clean”. They are then fried in oil with herbs and gar­lic. I once tried snails in France and did­n’t like them but the way they are cooked in Crete makes them totally dif­fer­ent. They are deli­cious and I can highly recom­mend them. They come served in their shells and you twist them out with your fork which takes a little bit of prac­tice

Fish and Seafood

Being an island in the middle of the Medi­ter­ranean it is no sur­prise that food from the sea has a sig­ni­fic­ant role in Cretan cuisine. How­ever some of the tra­di­tion­al spe­cies are now severely threatened so even if you can find them we would encour­age you to stick with spe­cies which have healthy pop­u­la­tions in the wild. Greece-is.com has a good list for Greece sea­food and fish with pic­tures and the sort of recipes each is found in.

Squid

Cala­mari is a very well known Greek food made by bat­ter­ing and deep fry­ing squid. I highly recom­mend it.

Octopus

The Cretans serve octopus more often than squid, often grilled or cooked in a sauce. Unlike squid it has a very dis­tinct­ive fla­vour.

Red & Grey Mullet

Red mul­let is a spe­ci­al­ity in Crete and is highly recom­men­ded, although as with much fish, it isn’t neces­sar­ily the cheapest option. Grey mul­let and indeed oth­er vari­et­ies can also some­times be found

Other fish and seafood

You will find plenty of vari­ety of oth­er fish and sea­food in Crete, includ­ing: Sea Urchin; Lob­ster; Hake; Cod; Sea-bream; Shrimps & Prawns; Anchovies, Sardines & White­bait; Clams & Mus­sels; Crab; Mack­er­el; Sea Bass; Bonito; Ray; Grouper; Cut­tle­fish; Tuna; Sword­fish

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